411mania Interviews: TV Producer and Author Howard Gordon
Howard Gordon has one of the more impressive resumes in television, with writing and producing stints on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, and Spenser for Hire, and serving as an executive producer on The X-Files and 24. He currently has two new dramas in the pilot stage (Homeland with Showtime and REM with NBC) and a new novel – Gideon’s War – in stores now.
Al Norton: When I mentioned in my column that I would be interviewing you I got inundated with emails about one subject so I decided to make it my first question; what’s going on with the 24 movie?
Howard Gordon: I think the 24 movie right now, as it stands, is on hold. Keifer (Sutherland) has signed on to do a TV series, so I think it’s not going to happen this summer. I think the conversations will continue and when we find an idea that makes it worth doing, we’ll do it. In the meantime there are no immediate plans for it.
Al Norton: Was the Homeland pilot the first thing you had written that was an adaptation of something else (Homeland is based on a popular Israeli series)?
Howard Gordon: No, I actually did a pilot 10 years ago called Ultraviolet that was an adaptation of a British series.
Al Norton: I have the DVD set of Ultraviolet.
Howard Gordon: Isn’t it great? I was excited about it but unfortunately it didn’t get picked up.
Al Norton: What challenges do you face as a writer when adapting someone else’s work?
Howard Gordon: The challenges are knowing not to fix what isn’t broken – some people can’t resist tearing something apart that’s not theirs – and to know what works and what doesn’t and on the other hand to resist the temptation to just change the names. Changing the names from Moshe to Mike didn’t work in this case. You really need to know what works for your market and with this adaptation it really was very specific to an Israeli audience and would not have worked so it really needed to be reinvented.
Al Norton: Not that the entire cast isn’t great (Claire Danes, Mandy Patinkin) but how thrilled were you to get Damian Lewis as your lead?
Howard Gordon: Unbelievably. I didn’t know how much until I saw him work. I mean, I knew he was one of our best actors but I didn’t know just how great he was until I saw him work.
Al Norton: How’s the pilot coming?
Howard Gordon: We’re cutting it right now. Without jinxing it I’m very, very excited about it.
Al Norton: Is part of the appeal to doing a show on a cable network that you avoid the very quick trigger that the major broadcast networks seems to be using recently?
Howard Gordon: I would think so. I think for a number of reasons the expectations are lower in terms of the numbers. I think the criteria for keeping a show on that air are different. If there is some critical reaction and some buzz about a show it doesn’t have to have the same ratings a network series does. Damages is a great example, or maybe it’s a bad example, because it never did very well but got some critical attention and lasted for a bit. Cable is great because I think you’re not broadcasting, your narrowcasting.
Al Norton: Is it REM or R.E.M.?
Howard Gordon: It’s REM (laughing).
Al Norton: My guess is that the idea you might have two shows on the air at once is a bit of a dream come true and a bit of a logistical nightmare.
Howard Gordon: It is absolutely both. Clearly what would have to happen if that situation took place is I would have to do things differently than I have before. I am usually fully hands on in any and all ways. I try not to think about it too much or it will drive me crazy before it even happens. I usually don’t oversee an assembly line very well, I usually have to get down and make the suit myself, so it would be an interesting exercise.
If Showtime picks up Homeland it would be a short order, 10 episodes or so, and we’d already have the pilot done, so I’d have a head start on that and some time before REM began.
Al Norton: The logline for REM that’s out there is “police officer wakes up from accident and finds himself in duel realities” and a lot of folks out there are calling it an “Inception like drama”; do you agree with that and can you expand on it?
Howard Gordon: It’s only Inception like in that someone’s dream world is a character in it. It’s as much about Inception as Time Traveler’s Wife is about Terminator. They couldn’t be more different and I think it’s a shorthand the press has latched on to.
It’s about a cop who is in an accident where his son is killed and his wife survives and he has these very vivid dreams where his wife has been killed and his son survives and the dreams are so vivid that he doesn’t know which is the reality and which is the dream.
Al Norton: Life on Mars has come up as a comparison as well although you don’t have any time travel.
Howard Gordon: The interesting thing about the Life on Mars one is that there is an organic creation of the very strange conceit of REM, which is a guy refusing to give up the loss he is facing and so his mind creates this place where he doesn’t fully have to and in Life on Mars there was a randomness to it that might have been a bit distancing. I think this has a more identifiable emotional center.
Al Norton: You’ve got Jason Isaacs REM, so it seems you’re getting to be a master with actors doing American accents.
Howard Gordon: I don’t know if it’s that we’re mesmerized by the Brits or what (laughing). It’s interesting, particularly in Homeland, because as we’ve written it it’s a uniquely American show but three of our cast members are doing American accents.
Al Norton: Who’s more passionate, Buffy fans or X-Files fans?
Howard Gordon: Oh boy (laughing). I’d have to say Buffy fans have it, mostly because it’s a more female and younger demographic. Buffy was a click behind X-Files in the generational sweep so the whole social media thing really helped carry Buffy along.
Al Norton: At this point can you just name your price at the Sci-Fi conventions?
Howard Gordon: You know I haven’t tried it but that’s a great idea. I haven’t been to one in a long time. We tried to get one going for 24 but it never came together.
Al Norton: Tell me something about Joss Whedon and Chris Carter than you’d only know from working with them.
Howard Gordon: They share a meticulousness, a real hands on approach and a dedication. They lived their work, particularly in those series. Most anybody who does the job kind of has to but in this case it kind of became all consuming. Really strong work ethics with both of them.
In Joss’ case…the word genius gets thrown around lightly but in this case it applies; he truly saw things in a way that no one else does, particularly with Buffy, since he was drawing on this vast bibliography to quote from an issue of Spider Man and the third act of King Lear with equal ease. He put stuff together in a tone like no one else had, and that’s sort of my definition of genius, someone who creates something that is completely new and where you can see the authorship.
Al Norton: 24 fans have their favorite – and not so favorite – seasons. When you make a show do you look back and say, as an example, “season three was amazing but five not so good”?
Howard Gordon: Absolutely. On one hand it’s all a blur because of the intensity of the experience but on the other hand I have very strong sense memories of that time, most of it nostalgic. I think you always love the beginning, much like a romance; there’s nothing like the beginning, the honeymoon. As it catches on and it grows it’s that start that keeps you coming back, and that’s why the first season of 24 was my favorite, because it was all so new. Joel, Bob, and me had such a good time. It was really hard and it was really fun. I learned a lot from them and I hope they learned from me and we were a real team. It was like a band coming together and having a hit song, or imagine that’s what it must feel like. Then, after a time, expectations get built up and the financial and creative pressures become more cumbersome when you’re at the top of the heap. Things start fraying at the edges like in any relationship and you have to work through it.
Al Norton: You’ve worked in TV for a long time with great success so did you write a book because you had a story you thought was right for that medium or did you decide you wanted to write a book and go from there?
Howard Gordon: A little bit of both. I had been carrying the idea of writing about brothers since college; my thesis was a novel about two brothers who had been orphaned and had to raise each other so that pairing had always intrigued me. The story itself was somewhat reverse engineered in the concept of a thriller. I had wanted to do a thriller and my publisher certainly new that, from a crass commercial potential point of view, if I had any name recognition it would be to write a thriller. It was during the writer’s strike and I was a bit fed up with the entire entertainment industry and thought, “let me try this thing I’ve held on to for so long.” I had no more excuses and a lot of time on my hands and took a shot at it.
Al Norton: Was the way in which you approached writing a book different than how you do TV? Were you on a schedule?
Howard Gordon: As deadlines approach you always find yourself being a lot more productive. I made a lot of wrong turns and the fact that I had to produce and write 24 at the same time meant I ended up doing much of this in the margins of a very busy schedule. It was tough but fortunately my publisher was very forgiving and happened to be a huge 24 fan; it helped because she’d say, “don’t screw up my show. You can have two more months (laughing).”
Al Norton: In your mind is Gideon’s War the first in a series?
Howard Gordon: In my mind and also in fact (laughing). It’s at least two books since I am writing the second one now. I’ve also been very humbled by this process. I feel like I’m running for local office; you go from book store to book store, five people in one store and fifty five in another.
Al Norton: Any talks about film rights?
Howard Gordon: We’ve got the book out to a couple of companies but nothing is close to done. I keep hearing people are interested. I’m not chasing it; I didn’t write the book for it to be turned into a television show or a movie.
Al Norton: People who work in TV usually don’t have much time to watch TV, but if you do watch, what shows are you watching?
Howard Gordon: It’s really true; during 24 I watched almost nothing. The only things I watched with any regularity were Curb Your Enthusiasm and The Office. Once 24 ended I caught up on a lot. I love Dexter, I love Breaking Bad…I own the DVD’s for The Wire and The Tudors and their up next. I also haven’t seen enough of Lost. I love Modern Family, just love it.
Al Norton: Because you work on the production side of TV, will you find yourself watching, say, an episode of Dexter and thinking, I want to go back and see who wrote that so I can hire them down the line?
Howard Gordon: It’s always a bit of a busman’s holiday (laughing). That may be what keeps me from watching a lot of TV as I find myself in one of two places, disgusted by something and very critical or jealous, and neither of those are very pleasant experiences (laughing). Being merely entertained isn’t that easy.
Gideon’s War is available at Amazon.com and BarnesandNoble.com as well as in bookstores everywhere.